Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Vagaries of Memory– Part 1

Another leaf of memory fallen onto the rich compost of imagination. Hearing writers speak about their process is usually what their readers want. After attending a few such events, it really struck me how (for the really engaging ones) all life experience was really fodder for the cannon of their minds. Whether they wrote essays or pure fiction, each memory was transformed into story. Just because it is present in a story does not make it any less true, no no. It magnifies the trueness, it resonates the human experience and connects us together.

Memory seems to have been the theme of this summer's musings, and now that the autumn has come - like a rake through the grass, I felt I needed to take the gleanings of the year, and gather them up. Who can say any memory is the true one, seen through multiple lenses of our experience? Each of the cases I sat in on for jury duty this year involved one man's memory against another's. Who do we believe? Who is the reliable witness?

Is it the man, fundamentally good, knowingly duped by his own community of immigrants into the crime of carrying drugs? What was his lense of experience: fear of revenge against his family if he didn't agree, the need to return home to see his blind mother, denial that his countrymen would involve him in such activity. His own brain shorted and lightning struck by the epilepsy he has suffered from, increased by the stress of imprisonment. He is broken, murmuring in Spanish, defeated by the facts, appalled by where he has found himself after years of struggle and sacrifice. What of the undercover cop, with his scouser accent and careful notes, his 20 years of experience: receiving a kilo of cocaine in a posh Mayfair townhouse from the casual swagger of the men with the package. Handing over a sackful of money to complete the sting with a wire down his shirt. Will he ever see it again? The good lawyers look down their Oxford noses at him. The wife bursts into tears and sobs quietly as the judge, stern but fair, commutes his sentence and softens it - but it is still another 3 years out of the full 6 she was entitled to give. He will miss his daughter's wedding as an innocent man - will this wedding even happen? She is marrying a very surprised policeman, newly informed of his father-in-law's case.

Is it the blank faced boy in the dock, nondescript in a white shirt and jeans? Can his accuser really recognise him two years later while walking down the street, after suffering a violent knife attack from this man's hand? Is he the "tall one with bulging eyes"? It doesn't help that the man in the witness stand preaches to his audience and crows about the rightness of his position, that he is the victim, that this man belongs to a brotherhood of bad men, running through these English streets. He harangues the patient judge, with the twinkly eyes, for allowing men of such ilk to go free! One man's memory against another's. The boy says he has been recognised bringing his shopping home on the same bus, that he lives only streets away from his accuser, that he has never owned a knife. Mistaken identity? Someone has to be lying. The witness may be irritating and pedantic but he is sincere, he will never forget the face leering with aggression above him, the blade slashing down, the blood, the hours of questioning by the police. The boy's demeanour changes as the verdict is read, he straightens up from his meekness and eyeballs the jury like he might recognise us walking down the street two years later.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Aunt Leaf - by Mary Oliver

Needing one, I invented her –
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Dear aunt, I'd call into the leaves,
and she'd rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,

and we'd travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker –
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish –
and all day we'd travel.

At day's end she'd leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

or she'd slouch from the barn like a grey opossum;

or she'd hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream,
this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Autumn Leaves

There have been a few windy days on the cliff and the trees are more bare than ever. Plenty of crunchy leaves underfoot of every colour of gold. Squirrels rustling in the undergrowth, busy collecting the tricornered beech nuts sprung free from their prickly cases.

I had my encounter with urban wildlife today after walking up the steep steps from school - my neighbour's cat in a small tree by the path looking like he couldn't go up or down. "Meow!" he said to me a trifle piteously. And seeing that he is always being told not to pee in my garden, it was a direct appeal to my previously non-existent sympathies. "Come on," I said, offering my arm as he inched along an ever-bendy girth-decreasing twig. Perhaps he could feel me smiling at his predicament in my mind. He tried not to struggle too hard at the indignity and I escaped with a very small scratch to my chin (for although it was a small tree, alas for me, it was a little over my head). Stalking off quite ungratefully afterwards. Still, needs must, on one's rounds in the universe.

Speaking of more urban wildlife, I was also lucky enough to see the peregrine falcons circling on the thermals above St.John's steeple where they have a nesting box. In the summer you can hear the harsh and raucous cries of the chicks, waiting for food. Plenty of fat pigeon here for them!

I love autumn - time of the earth, when the leaves are settling back into the loam. mmm. Here's one of my favourite poems from Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Spring and Fall

to a young child

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older 5
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name: 10
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for. 15